When You Are the Only One Who Wants to Get Organized

woman with laundry. When you are the only one who wants to get organized.
Image by MJ Jin from Pixabay

Life can be stressful. Activities, work, family responsibilities, self-care, etc. can all leave us feeling drained. One way to alleviate the stress ­is by organizing your time, space, and belongings. Bringing order to your life makes handling your various burdens easier. It can also empower you and enhance your sense of having things “under control.” Unfortunately, not everyone gets the urge to organize at the same moment. I often work in settings where one family member strongly desires an improvement, while others in the household are either disinterested or even adversarial. This begs the question, what can you do when you are the only one who wants to get organized?

If you are ready to make a change, and no one around you is willing to cooperate, I have a couple of suggestions.

Manage expectations.

One of the most important things you can do is to set expectations both for yourself and others. Acknowledge the fact that simply because you are ready to get organized doesn’t mean that those around you are feeling the same way. In fact, others may have more important things on their priority lists. Don’t expect everyone to suddenly be motivated to help you organize, or to even notice or care. Remind yourself up front that you will be working on this project for your own satisfaction, and that even if no one else contributes, it will still be worth your effort.

Communicate in advance.

Anytime you plan to undertake a project in a shared space, it is a good idea to communicate in advance about what you are planning to do. It is helpful to review the family calendar and check to see if there are any upcoming events or commitments that should be kept in mind. For example, the day before a family reunion at your house may not be the ideal time to unload the attic.

A family check-in also lets others know that this is important to you, providing you the opportunity to solicit their suggestions and support. You may not get the reaction you desire, i.e., enthusiasm and buy-in. However, you will have given everyone a chance to speak his/her mind. Additionally, by having a conversation about the state of affairs, you might also learn a bit about what is and/or is not working in the eyes of those with whom you share space.

Focus on your own domain.

In the interest of family harmony, begin organizing in spaces over which you have primary control. For example, rather than starting with your teenager’s room, begin instead with your bathroom or home office. You may want to get your teenager’s room whipped into shape, but he/she may be focused on playing well in the upcoming game, passing a test, getting a driver’s license, catching up on sleep, etc. You can’t expect your priorities to instantly be shared by everyone else. Of course, if you have very small children, you likely will need to declutter and establish systems for their things. As they get older, you can teach them what to do and transfer responsibility to them in an age-appropriate manner.

One of the most powerful ways to influence the behavior of others in your household is by organizing and maintaining your own possessions. Family members will observe that your spaces are ordered, functional, and easy to use. They will see you investing time to keep things organized, and this will make an impression, whether they verbalize their observations or not. Admittedly, they may pile their messes in your tidy spaces, but this can be discussed. The key is to “walk your talk,” not nag others about their spaces while allowing your own to spiral into chaos.

If you don’t know where to begin, you might want to try a monthlong organizing challenge, such as “Select-An-Effort” or “Thirty Things to Store.”

Decide what you will do with other people’s things.

Often, even when working in our own spaces, we come across items that belong to others. Talk about this with family members and ask them how they would like you to handle such items. There are a few options:

  • Place them in a pile, bin, or basket for review at a later time.
  • Put them in the bedroom of the owner.
  • Set some parameters that enable you to make decisions on their behalf. (e.g., if it is schoolwork from last  year, you can recycle it).

Avoid accosting family members when they walk in the door with a big pile and asking “What do you want me to do with these?” If review piles are never getting addressed, discuss the issue, and set a mutually agreed upon deadline. Also, never donate or dispose of someone else’s things without their approval. This will likely result in resentment, undermining future organizing projects.

If you find things that belong to someone who does not live in the household, make a plan for how you will proceed. For instance, you might take photos and text them to the owner(s), asking them what they want you to do. Alternatively, you might place a label on an item and put it in your car to drop off next time you are out. You may even need to ship the object if the person lives far away. Resist the temptation to “deal with it later.” Choose a course of action and see it through to completion.

Minimize disruptions to the household.

Few people want to be inconvenienced for someone else’s project. In most cases, organizing a space requires that the scene will get worse before it gets better. This is because you need to pull items out and sort them into categories for review before reloading them into your space. However, if you are working in a shared space, you want to minimize the extent to which your project interferes with the operation of the home.

There are a couple of ways to do this:

  1. Work in small batches, such as a few drawers or one section of a closet at a time, rather than unloading an entire kitchen or cabinet at once.
  2. Use a less-trafficked space for your sorting and review, such as an unused guest room or a folding table in the corner of the dining room.
  3. Clear away donations and trash after each organizing session. Don’t let them accumulate and get in the way of the functioning of the household.
Stay positive (especially around family members).

As with all projects, moments may arise that make you feel tired or discouraged. While this is normal, try not to complain, especially around unsupportive family members. Rather than receive words of encouragement, you are more likely to get comments such as, “Nobody asked you to do this, so why don’t you just quit?” A negative attitude may also undermine the odds of success in future projects.

If you need a cheerleader or some guidance as you work, reach out to others who are not personally impacted by what you are doing, such as a friend or professional organizer.

*      *     *

Taking steps toward bringing order to your space and time can be a positive, and largely free, technique for decreasing your stress and enhancing your serenity. Even if you must “go it alone,” the process can be very rewarding.

Do you now – or have you, in the past – wanted to get organized in the midst of a “less than enthusiastic” crowd?

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22 thoughts on “When You Are the Only One Who Wants to Get Organized”

  1. I have recently been working with a LOT of families on organizing. It is usually Mom who wants to get organized and everyone else is not too keen on this. What seems to work best is to give everyone a heads up, set a date, and bring in a professional organizer. With one extra team member to share the plan, everyone moves forward. Of course, there is also the reward of treats and food included in the plan!

    1. I have found professionals can be very helpful in these situations because we aren’t “on any one person’s side.” I recently helped two young people because it was too contentious when Mom was involved.

      Whoever is responsible for the state of the house, mostly the Mom as you say, usually is the most motivated!

  2. I’ve often encountered this same situation. One household member wants to get organized, and the rest of the family is disinterested. In fact, they might even try to sabotage the motivated person’s organizing attempts.

    As you mentioned, I, too, have seen others get on board once they see the results. When someone makes improvements, it’s inspiring to others. It can prompt them to take action too.

    I love all of the suggestions you made for informing household members what you’re working on, creating some boundaries for interactions and questions, and creating a positive environment.

    1. Creating a positive environment is important. If all the person organizer does throughout is complain, it will only turn the household off. I often tell clients and prospective clients that organizing is a very positive process. We have a lot of fun, and always feel great after each session. Respecting that everyone else in the household may not be in the same place is helpful, though. When we make progress ourselves, hopefully it will catch on!

  3. I haven’t worked with a lot of families. But there have been plenty of couples where one person wanted to get organized and the other not so much. I agree with your approach to “focus on your domain.” Likely as not, I’d eventually arrive to a session with the wife (my client) confiding in me that she caught her husband organizing his workshop, having been secretly influenced by her activity and improved mood!
    Hazel Thornton recently posted…Just Say No — Here’s How and WhyMy Profile

    1. I love that kind of story. When organizing goes viral in the household, that’s a win!

      I once entered a home office to work with the wife, who apparently didn’t discuss my participation with her husband with whom she shared the space. I said, “Good morning” and he was covering all his stuff with a sheet and said, “Don’t touch my stuff.” I said, “You got it.” Not the best way to begin, but we respected his wishes and made her happy.

  4. I think all your suggestions are spot-on, Seana. It’s important for the person who is motivated to share their thoughts (and ideas) with others in the household. It’s equally important for them, as you say, to walk the talk. I have worked in a very full home where the husband and 2 adult children were not onboard and kept bringing things into the home. The mom and I worked on her things. Her closet, her side of the bedroom, the place where she sits in the living room to make those spaces more functional. It is discouraging for the one who wants order when the rest of the family does not see the benefit. She was reluctant to have a family meeting. After some time passed and we made as much progress together as we could without the rest of the family we pressed pause on our work together.
    Diane N Quintana recently posted…Letting Go Is An Act Of BraveryMy Profile

    1. At least you gave her some spaces of her own to which she could retreat and experience victory. It is hard when the rest of the family ins’t on board – it can get discouraging. Nevertheless, there is progress that can be both initiated and sustained, and sometimes that is enough!

  5. I get it. I’m the only one who wants to get organized and update systems in my home. While I work with clients to help them and their families get organized, my kids don’t want me to help them.

    However, recently, we went on an extended family trip, and they came to me to help them maximize their luggage space. It was an exhausting process, but we could fit everything in the bags we were taking without too much backache.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Unique Organizing Tips I Developed While Working with ClientsMy Profile

    1. It is like they knew you were available when they were ready. Sometimes that is the best you can do. My husband resisted me for years, but finally brought me in to work on his home office. He was kind of a tough nut, but we persevered and he ended up loving his new space!

    1. I completely agree, Janet. Shared space is the same, whether it is at home, at work, in a volunteer setting, etc. I have a similar challenge with a group with whom I volunteer. This can be especially difficult because everything I set up doesn’t get maintained by others. In these cases, I try to view my efforts as “donations to the cause.” The structure is there, making it easier to reset every now and then.

  6. You have some really good tips here. This is a common situation with a lot of people in my group. I actually made up an ebook on this subject. It’s really challenging when others in the family don’t see things in the same way. Boundaries can definitely help. Patience of a saint is also needed. It’s tricky and really no easy solution.
    Kim recently posted…Hello Fall – A Time for Balance and HarmonyMy Profile

  7. Oh, Seana, this is excellent. I especially agree on dealing with your own space first. So often, clients come to me wanting me to work on their spouse’s areas (sometimes foisting me on them, sometime as a “surprise” while the spouse is away) and I have to explain the ethics of organizing (professional and otherwise). I always try to get across that the best way to encourage someone to organize is to lead by example. Often, the people most unwilling to declutter become envious of the successes of the initial client! “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” is a good rubric!

    Every one of your tips is spot-on!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Paper Doll Organizes You To Prepare for an EmergencyMy Profile

    1. It’s probably a good mantra for life: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” Could apply to just about anything we do. There is great power in working through a problem, without complaining, with consistency, right? Can’t help but impact those around us.

    1. True, sometimes we organize to make space for guests. That’s more of an “urgent” situation, and often results in making things look nice vs. true organizing. Alas, we do what we must! In an ideal world, start with spaces you can control and maintain.

  8. This seems to be a common problem. The “all out” and the “all in” members in a family. Most important is that the organized one doesn’t fall into the habit of “putting away things for” another family member. NOT helpful. Leading by example does seem to “rub off” in many cases. Most people seem to realize how personally satisfying it is to live in an uncluttered space one they experience it. Keeping a space tidy requires daily effort and it’s easy to slide back. Thanks for your helpful suggestions for dealing with this problem.


    1. Definitely agree, Dianne, that it is frustrated with someone else in the family puts things away “for you.” This means they are bothered, and where they put something might be where you actually want it to be stored. Focusing on organizing our OWN things is the best approach.

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